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The Ivory Bill·Birds·Extinct Birds

Passenger Pigeons, Ectopistes migratorius

Passenger pigeon perched on a tree trunk

Passenger Pigeons were migratory birds that bred in deciduous forests and mixed woodlands in North America, primarily in the United States and Canada, during the spring and summer seasons.

Passenger Pigeons were commonly found in extensive forested areas with abundant mast-producing trees such as oaks, beeches, and chestnuts. These habitats provided a rich supply of acorns and other tree nuts, which were abundant during the breeding season.

Passenger Pigeons were estimated to have a population ranging between 3 to 5 billion individuals. They were known for their immense flocks, which could darken the sky for days as they passed overhead. Their communal roosting and nesting behaviors were unique, with large colonies often occupying the same area year after year, often covering several square miles.

They foraged in dense forests and woodland edges for acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts, and seeds of various trees. They also fed on fruits, berries, and invertebrates such as insects and caterpillars.

Passenger Pigeons exhibited a remarkable ability to locate and consume large quantities of food quickly, utilizing their strong beaks to crack open nuts and seeds. Their large flocks could strip a forest of its mast in a short time, showcasing their efficient foraging strategies.

Courtship involved males performing a series of aerial displays and vocalizations to attract females. Males would fly in tight, rapid circles and produce a distinctive “cooing” call. Once a pair formed, they would engage in mutual preening and billing.

Nests were built in the forks of tree branches, typically in deciduous or mixed forests. The nests were constructed from twigs, leaves, and grasses, and were often located high in the canopy, ranging from 10 to 60 feet above the ground. Nesting occurred in large colonies, sometimes covering several square miles.

Females laid one or two eggs per clutch, and both parents shared incubation duties, which lasted about 12 to 14 days. After hatching, both adults fed the chicks a regurgitated mixture of partially digested food, primarily seeds and nuts. The chicks grew rapidly, fledging within 14 to 16 days.

Chicks initially relied on their parents for food and protection, learning to forage as they grew. As they developed, they became more independent, but remained vulnerable to predators such as hawks and owls.

Fledging occurred within two weeks, with continued parental guidance. Young pigeons gradually developed their foraging skills, transitioning from regurgitated food to solid seeds and nuts.

Passenger Pigeons were long-distance migrants, traveling in large flocks between breeding grounds in North America and wintering areas in the southern United States, particularly in the Gulf Coast states. They followed specific flyways, often along river valleys and coastal plains.

Wintering habitats included mixed woodlands and forested areas with abundant food sources such as acorns, beechnuts, and seeds. During winter, they also consumed fruits and berries, supplementing their diet.

They departed from wintering grounds in early spring, returning to their breeding areas in the northern United States and Canada by late spring. Their migrations were highly synchronized, with large flocks moving together to exploit seasonal food resources.

Passenger Pigeons faced several threats that led to their decline and eventual extinction. Major factors included massive hunting for commercial purposes, habitat destruction due to deforestation, and the disruption of their breeding colonies.

Hunting pressures were particularly intense during the 19th century, as the birds were killed in large numbers for food and sport. Their abundance and gathering in large, dense flocks made them easy targets. Additionally, the clearing of forests for agriculture reduced their habitat and food sources, making it difficult for the species to sustain their large populations.

Multiple pressures caused Passenger Pigeons to migrate further north into Canada where harsh conditions of severe winters led to food shortages and increased mortality rates among the pigeons, contributing to further overall decline.

Efforts to protect Passenger Pigeons came too late to save the species. Public awareness campaigns led by early conservationists advocated for legal protection and the establishment of wildlife preserves. By the time conservation measures were considered, the population had already declined to a critical level. Some early conservationists and naturalists recognized the need for protective legislation, but effective measures were not implemented in time. Laws were proposed to regulate hunting and preserve their habitats, but these were largely ignored or poorly enforced.

Efforts to find and locate Passenger Pigeons after their population decline involved numerous expeditions and searches. Ornithologists, naturalists, and enthusiasts conducted extensive surveys in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hoping to find remnant populations. Areas with historical records of large flocks, such as the Great Lakes region and the Appalachian Mountains, were thoroughly investigated. Despite these efforts, no significant populations were discovered.

The last confirmed sighting of a wild Passenger Pigeon occurred in 1901 in Ohio. Subsequent reported sightings were often unverified or based on misidentifications. The most notable efforts to find the species included searches in remote forests and areas with historical records of large flocks, but these efforts were unsuccessful. The last known Passenger Pigeon, named Martha, died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914, marking the species’ official extinction.

Since then, searches for surviving Passenger Pigeons have occasionally been reported, but none have yielded concrete evidence. These searches typically focus on remote or less-explored regions where small, hidden populations might have persisted. However, the consensus among ornithologists is that the Passenger Pigeon is extinct, and no credible evidence has surfaced to suggest otherwise.